The opening chapter of this fascinating story establishes a milieu in which leisured aristocrats indulge exquisite aesthetic tastes. Dominating this world of luxury is the cynical and brilliantly witty Lord Henry Wotton. He introduces Dorian Gray, a wealthy young man of mysterious background, and Basil Hallward, a renowned artist. Filled with admiration, Basil paints a striking portrait of Dorian. Seeing it, Dorian exclaims that he would sell his soul to remain always youthful while the portrait ages in his place. He gets his wish.
Dorian then embarks upon a hedonistic life, developing every intellectual, aesthetic, and sensual appetite to the utmost. Despite his look of innocent beauty, he exerts a corrupting influence over many acquaintances. At lease two later commit suicide. Yet except for his irrational (and undetected) murder of Basil--who realized the truth about Dorian and tried to make him repent--Dorian’s sins remain unspecified. He tries to confess them to Lord Henry, who, however, refuses to take anything seriously.
Meanwhile, Dorian’s portrait grows more horribly ugly with each new sin, until in a fit of remorse he destroys it and, unwittingly, himself.
THE PICTURE OF DORIAN GRAY was a controversial masterpiece of the 1890’s Aesthetic movement. (Wilde defended it against charges of immorality by saying that vice and virtue are to the novelist what colors on a palette are to the painter.) Yet the novel’s appeal far exceeds that of a mere period piece. Despite the dark theme, it gives us the peculiarly Wildean brand of flashing wit and paradox, and finely wrought descriptions of color, sound, and even scent.
Ellmann, Richard, ed. Oscar Wilde: A Collection of Critical Essays. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 1969. An anthology of essays on the works of Oscar Wilde, by a series of well-known authors. Includes two essays on The Picture of Dorian Gray, a contemporary (1891) review of the book by Walter Pater, “A Novel by Mr. Oscar Wilde,” and a 1947 treatment by Edouard Roditis, “Fiction as Allegory: The Picture of Dorian Gray.”
McCormack, Jerusha Hull. The Man Who Was Dorian Gray. New York: Palgrave, 2000. A scholarly scraping together of the life of Wilde’s model.
Nunokawa, Jeff. Oscar Wilde. New York: Chelsea House, 1995. Part of a series entitled “Lives of Notable Gay Men and Lesbians.” Includes an extensive discussion of The Picture of Dorian Gray as a love story, emphasizing the relationships between Gray and the two other major male characters in the book, Lord Henry Wotton and Basil Hallward.
San Juan, Epifanio, Jr. The Art of Oscar Wilde. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1967. An analysis of Wilde’s major works. Includes a long chapter dealing with The Picture of Dorian Gray, which emphasizes Wilde’s treatment of psychology. Also includes a discussion of the work’s influence on later writers.
Sedgwick, Eve Kosofky. Epistemology of the Closet. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1990. A discussion of homosexuality in literature. In her treatment of The Picture of Dorian Gray, the author emphasizes sentimental love rather than sex. Also includes a discussion of the narcissistic qualities of the title character.
Weintraub, Stanley. Literary Criticism of Oscar Wilde. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1968. A collection of the critical works of Wilde. Of particular interest is the series of letters Wilde wrote to various newspapers in response to the negative criticism the book received when first published.